It was with some trepidation that we pulled into the PNG border town of Vanimo early one morning. Papua New Guinea has earned a reputation as a dangerous destination for cruising sailors. It is certainly justified by the reports of attacks and theft that boats have experienced. Our research prior to coming to PNG helped us choose a safe path: one of the basic tenets was “don’t go to the mainland.” Well, we finally had to.
We had two simple tasks to complete in Vanimo: our visas were held at the Indonesian consulate there, and we would do our final clearance out of PNG at customs. We hoped to keep our stay as brief as possible. How hard could it be to complete two simple errands in a town of maybe a half dozen paved roads? Who knows, maybe we could do it in a day!
Oh, such sweet naivete.
We arrived at the Indonesian consulate before it opened at 9 am Monday morning, and found a small group of people already waiting. Apparently, proximity to the border makes this an active place for visa renewals for people of all nationalities working in Indonesia, who must leave periodically to reset the clock on their allowed time in the country. Immediate setback of about an hour, as we waited for our turn.
Our “social visas” for Indonesia (a class which is readily extended, unlike the visa issued upon arrival) were arranged through the agent in Bali who helped with our cruising permit. As we might have anticipated, it was not quite as simple a process as just collecting the visas at the consulate. They needed us to complete forms onsite, wanted two passport photos per person, copies of the sponsor letter from our agent, copies of our cruising permit, passports for all, and of course- hundreds of dollars in fees, payable by local currency only. So it was back to the boat to get copies of all the right papers, and ATM to have enough cash. No way were we getting out of here in 24 hours!
While filled out paperwork at the consulate, Jamie and Jon (our fellow Seattleite from Sea Glass) went down to the customs office to complete clearance formalities. It’s amazing how different this can be in different countries: in Fiji, we were given a stern lecture about the very few hours we had to be physically outside the Fijian border once their stamp was on our paper. Trust me when I tell you that you that Fijian officials are not to be toyed with! PNG officialdom has generally been… how to say it… well, less officious!
A local guy fell into step with Jon and Jamie on their way. He hoped to sell guide services, and seemed happy to just chat with visitors when that wasn’t needed. But wow, did he give them an earful about violence in Vanimo. He regaled them stories of misfortunes that have befallen expats in town at the hands of less scrupulous residents: losing a finger to get a ring and much worse.
It did not make me feel better about having to extend our stay in Vanimo.
When the guys reached the customs office, it was empty. Papers and equipment sat on desks, a startling lack of security for a country that posts armed guards in front of trading stores. When the official showed up, paperwork was done quickly- then he insisted on driving them back to town. Nice! Then it was off to the bank. There, Jamie was subjected to some very unwelcome attention. The staredown that doesn’t flinch when greeted with a smile and a wave, and follows you down the road. Really unpleasant, especially considering he’d just maxed our ATM withdrawal so we’d have enough cash for our visas.
With cash in hand and all paperwork done, we were able to get everything submitted to the consulate by 11am- but were told visas wouldn’t be ready to collect until the following day. We couldn’t depart for Indonesia in the afternoon (it’s prudent to arrive in a new country / new harbor with some daylight hours to play with), so we meant we’d need to spend three nights in Vanimo. We weren’t really excited about that.
That night, we felt uneasy. Jamie and I took turns sitting in the cockpit, keeping an eye out. Fishing boats had drifted uncomfortably close to us the night before, and we had reports of petty theft off cruising boats in the anchorage- probably from similar vessels. We really didn’t want to end what had been a lovely stretch of time in PNG on a sour note.
– To be continued –